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April 14, 2008

The Cult That Wants My Kids

When Teressa Wall testified against polygamist “prophet” Warren Jeffs, she assumed there’d be payback. But how could she know they’d come after her children?

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Teressa Wall emanates fairy-tale magic. She’s blonde and pert, yet an iron will shapes those soft lines. She recently cut her long locks and donated them to an organization that helps children being treated for cancer; the feathery flip she now wears accentuates elfin features and sets off a tiny diamond in the crease of her right nostril — a new asset she describes as a “judgment detector.” When we meet at Wingers Restaurant in Ontario, OR, Teressa flashes a brilliant smile with white, even teeth that have never known braces, offering a firm handshake in greeting.

I shouldn’t be surprised by her forthright nature. She is, after all, partially responsible for bringing down Warren Jeffs, leader of the polygamous cult called FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints — not to be confused with the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which cast off polygamy in 1890). Better known is her sister Elissa, who testified against Jeffs last September, having accused him of forcing her into marriage at age 14 to her cousin and abetting her subsequent rape. But it was Teressa who set the stage by repeatedly challenging the FLDS patriarchy over the years, and it was Teressa’s testimony that dealt Jeffs a fatal blow. Now it is Teressa who risks losing her three children for having taken a stand.

While the typical polygamist wife is a beribboned woman-child dressed in pastel prairie garb, Teressa, 27, betrays a whiff of modern savvy in her khaki pants, long-sleeve henley, and ski vest. She radiates unusual pizzazz for a single mother who has just worked a full day at an auto-service center. Her children are in tow: tall and sober Jasmin, 9, who wears long, tight braids reminiscent of her fundamentalist roots; 8-year-old Nike, who looks just like his father; and Summer, 5, who asks for ice cream and wants to watch a movie when she gets home — wild pleasures they had been denied until two years ago, when Teressa escaped the FLDS compound in Creston Valley, Canada.

Teressa tells me she used to work at Wingers a year ago — “my first job in the ‘wicked world,’” she says, chuckling at the phrase grimly thrown around by the sect’s leaders. “One of the regular customers invited me to become a teller at Wells Fargo, so I did that. Now I’m a bookkeeper at a Chevy dealership. The past two years have been amazing. I’ve grown so much, and I’ve been really lucky.” With whatever free time she has, Teressa likes to read, likes to sing, and likes to learn — all forbidden in her former life.

She takes a sip of her raspberry lemonade. “I barely made it through the ninth grade,” she confesses. “When I was 14, people thought I was too rebellious, so they pulled me out of school and sent me away to regain my ‘sweetness.’” She looks up and grins. “It didn’t work.”

After dinner, we travel over icy back roads to her small snowbound ranch house, with firewood stacked near the door and icicles stretching from eaves to porch. In the spare living room there’s a huge lighted aquarium with water but no fish. In the bedroom, two lacy camisoles, which would be heretical in a strict FLDS home, dry on a blanket stretched on the hardwood floor. Everything is tidy and shining, typical of polygamists who make the most of what little they have and deeply believe that “cleanliness is next to godliness.”

After the children bathe, Teressa combs their wet hair and straightens their pajama tops, speaking respectfully of “Father,” who will come tomorrow to take them for a three-day weekend. Summer wonders why Mama and Father can’t be together. “Why won’t you just put on a dress?” she asks, eyeing Teressa’s khaki pants.

With the children in bed, Teressa whispers to me, “They can’t understand why I don’t just go along with the rules. They don’t know that the biggest reason I left was to protect them.”

Then she tells me her story, starting with her father, Lloyd Wall, and her mother, Sharon Steed, who was what is known as the “second wife” — Lloyd Wall had another family with his so-called first wife. As such, Sharon worked tirelessly, cooking, cleaning, and sewing for both families. “We were the first family’s servants,” Teressa says.

The seventh of Sharon’s 14 children, Teressa spoke her mind. Indeed, she says, her nose was bloodied and her jaw bruised in the course of standing up for her mother and siblings to the first wife. “It made me so mad, the way they treated her,” says Teressa, “the way they treated all of us.”

Typically, FLDS followers spied on each other, and someone reported that Teressa listened to forbidden music — which eventually included anything not written and sung by FLDS patriarchs. Sharon feared for her daughter’s soul and begged her to discuss her future with FLDS head Rulon Jeffs (the stern, bespectacled FLDS “prophet” and Warren’s father, who used to be the organization’s accountant). Teressa quickly made it clear that, unlike her sisters before her, she would never marry an old man.

In 1996, FLDS families, including Teressa’s, began flocking from Salt Lake City to Colorado City, a desert village situated on the Utah-Arizona border, where polygamists’ mansions mixed with small houses beneath the Vermillion Cliffs; Rulon Jeffs had designated it the site where FLDS members would be lifted up to the celestial kingdom at the millennium. Every girl 13 and older had been told that if she didn’t marry, she would not be lifted up, but rather abandoned to the horrors of the apocalypse. Already 15, Teressa was resistant to the idea, but cult members tried to bring her around: One early summer day, doped up on pain medication after a root canal, she fell asleep in the car, only to wake up and find herself on her way to a meeting with Rulon and Warren, now a rising force in the FLDS patriarchy — her mother had taken a detour. Once there, Warren avidly lectured and questioned Teressa for over an hour while she sat in silence. “They would use our words against us,” she says now. “My only defense was to keep my mouth shut.”

Eventually she was exiled for her stubbornness to the FLDS compound in Canada. Teressa gives a wry smile. “Everybody up there knew about me before they even met me” — especially Winston Blackmore, the “Bishop of Bountiful,” the charismatic and commanding leader of the compound. He told Teressa that the sooner she married, the better.

“No way,” she smiled good-naturedly.

Blackmore didn’t smile back. Instead, he sent her to work in a log mill, without pay or warm clothing, on an all-male crew. Six months later, he called Teressa from the backwoods of Sundre, Alberta, to one of his several homes in the beautiful Creston Valley, and he handed her a list of candidates for marriage — with his own name at the top. Teressa protested. Then Blackmore looked her in the eye. “You’re going to get married, and that’s all there is to it. If you don’t choose, I’ll choose for you.”

Teressa looked around her. Everyone she knew was feverishly preparing for the millennium. All her girlfriends had married in order to be ready for Christ’s Second Coming. Sixteen now, and weary of rebellion, with nowhere to run, she consented to marry the innocuous-seeming Roy Blackmore, Winston’s nephew and Teressa’s own cousin by marriage, just a year older than she. They were wed two weeks later in a ceremony performed by Warren Jeffs. Within a few months, she was pregnant with Jasmin.

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